As 2013 continues to slog along, I continue to wait for a truly great film to be released. On my nomination ballot for next year’s Biggie Awards, I still don’t […]
As 2013 continues to slog along, I continue to wait for a truly great film to be released. On my nomination ballot for next year’s Biggie Awards, I still don’t have any movies under consideration for Best Picture, Director, or either screenplay categories. At this point, 2013 is looking a lot like 2009. Hopefully that changes in the coming weeks. Is Star Trek Into Darkness as good as J.J. Abrams‘ first Trek outing? Will Man of Steel live up to the fast-rising expectations? Please, movie gods, let’s hope so.
Anyway, here are my thoughts on 3 recent flicks that I’ve seen, none of which rocked my socks, but all of which are worthy of comment. Minor SPOILERS ahead.
After being delayed 6 months from its original release, The Great Gatsby finally opened last week to a surprisingly strong $50 million weekend. The film is directed by Baz Luhrmann, who may be hit or miss, but one thing’s for sure; he’s a visionary, and I can appreciate that. His last film, 2008’s Australia, was a huge disappointment, but I’m a big fan of Romeo + Juliet (which began young Leonardo DiCaprio‘s meteoric rise as a heartthrob) and Moulin Rouge!, one of the best (and easily the most original) musicals of the last 20 years. He’s very much a love-him or hate-him kind of director, because his visual and editorial style is very IN YOUR FACE. In fact, I despised Moulin Rouge! after the first time I saw it- even going so far as to tell people it was one of the worst movies I’d ever seen, but for whatever reason, I gave it a second chance and “got it” the second time. Summed up, The Great Gatsby is very much a Baz Luhrmann film.
The movie looks incredible. The costumes and production design are amazing, both of which were supervised by Luhrmann’s wife, Catherine Martin. I’d love to find out how much money they spent on those costumes. The suits they created for Gatsby are exquisite. The film carries a reported $160 million budget, which seems absurd for a costume drama, but all of that money is on the screen. The visual effects are all top notch, helping to create a 1920’s New York that is very close to a fantasy world. And I mean that in a good way. The movie is of course based in New York, but was shot entirely in Australia. However, you can’t tell that based on the art direction and visual effects, which created the big wide shots of the city and the glitzy Long Island mansion exteriors.
Predictably, a lot of literary nerd critics are whining about the movie not being faithful enough to the book. At what point does this stop being something critics fuss about? It’s called an ADAPTATION, fuckwads. Nowhere in the credits here are you gonna see, “100% Authentic Screenplay by Baz Luhrmann”. In fact, you’re not gonna see that on any movie that’s based on a book. I’m ashamed to admit I have not read the book, but I have read about some of the changes the filmmakers made and I don’t see a huge issue with any of them as they’re presented in the movie.
The performances in the film are all plus-plus. It’s a fantastic ensemble. Mr. DiCaprio is of course excellent as the iconic Gatsby, with just the right amount of rich-guy charisma and lover’s vulnerability. I’d say it’s one of his better performances, but he’s always awesome. I thought he was especially good in the scene at Nick Carraway‘s house where he’s reunited with Daisy after not seeing her for 5 years. DiCaprio’s longtime real-life friend Tobey Maguire is really good as the film’s narrator and the audience’s entryway into the story, Carraway. The other standout is Joel Edgerton as Daisy’s racist prick of a husband (and thus Gatsby’s nemesis), Tom Buchanan. It’s a great role for an actor, and he kills it. We’ve also got the fast-rising Jason Clarke and Isla Fisher in key supporting roles.
Carey Mulligan was good as Daisy, but I found that the character simply is not likeable, which took away a bit from me buying in to the Gatsby-Daisy romance. Oh, woe is her! Which rich guy will she choose between? What exactly are the stakes for this character? And the fact that she doesn’t face any consequences (or show any remorse for that matter) for participating in a deadly hit & run sealed the deal on my not giving a shit what happened to her. Is this what happens in the book?!
The other cast member worthy of note is Elizabeth Debicki. What a discovery she is! In her first major movie role, this 22-year old Aussie newcomer absolutely lights up the screen as Jordan Baker, playing against some major Hollywood heavyweights as if she were a seasoned pro. It was an inspired move by Luhrmann to cast a rookie in this part. I often bitch that we don’t see enough fresh faces in big studio films, and I’m thrilled Gatsby was an exception. I can’t wait to see more from her down the road. This girl’s eyes will take your breath away.
Some people are butthurt that the film has a modern soundtrack, with several hip hop and electronic songs playing over 1920’s scenery. Of course, this screams ignorance. If you know Baz Luhrmann’s style, this kind of soundtrack shouldn’t surprise you one bit. If you were willing to accept Ewan McGregor and Nicole Kidman singing Elton John in Paris in 1900, then you should be able to get on board with a Jay-Z song playing over a scene set at a huge party in the 1920’s. I think the soundtrack is amazing, and the songs they use in the film are placed perfectly. My favorites are the new tracks from Lana Del Rey (“Young and Beautiful”, a near-masterpiece, which plays in several different scenes using several different arrangements), Florence + The Machine (“Over the Love”), and The xx (“Together”, which plays hauntingly over the end credits). There’s also a great new track from dubstep artist Nero (“Into the Past”) that isn’t actually used in the movie (or if it is, I didn’t notice). This album is a definite BUY, and if “Young and Beautiful” isn’t nominated for an Oscar, these Academy people are even more boobish than I ever thought. I’m not in love with the new Jay-Z and will.i.am tracks or the Beyoncé/Andre 3000 cover of Amy Winehouse‘s “Back in Black”, but they’re certainly serviceable.
I chose to spend the extra cash to see the film in 3D and did not regret it. It’s some of the best 3D you’re gonna see this year. If there’s a list of directors who are custom-fit for 3D visuals, Baz Luhrmann would be on it. Most of it is pretty subtle (i.e. very few shots of random objects flying directly into camera), but you do notice it. This will sound weird, but I especially liked how they used it in the opening and closing credits. Gatsby was shot on the amazing Red Epic digital camera system and shot for 3D.
I didn’t really have any major issues with the film. I just found that the story didn’t grab me as much as I thought it might, especially based on all the hype that this is one of the classic stories in all of literature. It didn’t make me want to rush out and buy the book is what I guess I’m saying. That said, The Great Gatsby is an easy recommend to see in theaters, and you should see it in 3D if you want the best theatrical experience possible. I didn’t love the movie, but I liked it a lot.
IMDb Rating: 7/10
Biggies Consideration: Best Ensemble Performance, Actor (Leonardo DiCaprio), Supporting Actor (Joel Edgerton), Cinematography, Art Direction, Costume Design, Makeup, Original Song x3, Visual Effects, Sound, Sound Editing
The first of our two highly anticipated Ryan Gosling movies is now winding down its theatrical run. The Place Beyond the Pines reunites The Gosling with his Blue Valentine director, Derek Cianfrance. This is a duo I was eager to see work together again, as Blue Valentine is a gem of a movie. Pines aspires to be a small town crime epic, and there are moments here that come close to greatness, but the 3-episode structure of the film didn’t entirely work for me. I reeeeallllly wanted this to be about 15% better than it was. Unfortunately, its reach exceeded its grasp. I respect the film’s ambition. I understand what it was trying to be, but I don’t think it quite gets there.
I won’t spoil why, but I will say that Gosling only appears in the first third of the movie. I did not know this going in, and I was quite shocked when it was clear his role in the film was done. His character is compelling, and as always, he gives a hell of a performance, this time as a stunt motorcycle driver who, out of financial desperation, turns to robbing banks to make ends meet and support his infant child. The extended tracking shot that opens the film is excellent, and I won’t be the first to say that it compares favorably to some of the better long tracking shots ever, like Scorsese‘s famous one in Goodfellas. I still don’t know how they pulled off the end of that shot, where Gosling rides into the cage and starts doing those tricks. No way was he actually doing that. Anyway, you’ll know what I’m talking about when you see it. It’s the very first shot of the movie.
The second “act” of the film introduces Bradley Cooper‘s good guy cop, who essentially becomes the protagonist for the rest of the movie. It’s some of Cooper’s finest work to date. I don’t wanna give too much away, but his character is forced to battle blatant police corruption while trying not to succumb to it. There’s great work from Ray Liotta and Bruce Greenwood, and really the entire cast is superb, from Eva Mendes to Mahershala Ali to Ben Mendelsohn all the way down to Dane DeHaan and Emory Cohen playing Gosling & Cooper’s sons, whose storyline wraps up the film (and presents some of the biggest issues with the storytelling). It’s a really strong, eclectic cast.
The filmmaking here is as good as the acting, which is always nice to see in a smaller budget film like this. There are some impressive widescreen visuals from cinematographer Sean Bobbitt. I was especially impressed by the stuntwork on the motorbike bank robbing scenes. The final one, where Gosling evades a police car through a cemetery and some back roads, was as exciting as anything you’ll see from this summer’s blockbusters (and features zero CGI!), primarily because here we actually give a fuck about what might happen to this character. Go figure! Also noteworthy is the brooding score from the multi-talented Mike Patton.
As I said, the film’s biggest problems arise in the third “chapter” of the film, which focuses on Gosling & Cooper’s now-teenage sons, and how the intersection of their lives directly impacts Cooper, who is at that point an up & coming politician who can ill-afford the troubles his son creates during a close election. The young actors do fine work, but the bottom line is that this is the least interesting portion of the film, which is a big issue considering it’s the final third of the movie. Unfortunately, the most interesting part of the movie is the first third, and that’s obviously not how movies are supposed to work.
The themes this film tackles, like the meaning of fatherhood and redemption, are grand and appeal to me. I like this movie quite a bit, and have no hesitation recommending you see it, but it could have been something truly special, and that’s incredibly frustrating.
IMDb Rating: 7/10
Biggies Consideration: Best Actor (Bradley Cooper), Supporting Actor (Ryan Gosling), Cinematography, Original Score, Stuntwork
Pain & Gain: in which Michael Bay just can’t help himself, even with a somewhat restrictive $26 million budget. This is Bay’s smaller, semi-pet project, something to pass the time in between Transformers movies (yes, he’s doing a fourth one, coming next summer). Pain & Gain is a true story so ridiculous that it seems like it must be the imaginings of a drugged up Hollywood screenwriter. If Michael Bay ever wrote a movie, this is something he’d probably come up with. But no, almost all of this actually happened in Miami in 1995, just not in the same comedic tone that Bay presents it. The real life events that inspired the film were quite dramatic, whereas Pain & Gain is basically a 3-man buddy comedy. It’s no wonder the guy who was kidnapped and tortured in the actual incident was pissed off about his ordeal being made presented in jest.
Let’s be clear though, and fair to the filmmakers. Are the three kidnappers/stars of the movie presented as good guys? Definitely not. They’re amiable enough that the audience doesn’t hate them for the terrible things they’re doing, but I don’t believe they’re made out to be sympathetic. A lot of critics disagree, but I don’t think the movie portrays these nuts as typical hero protagonists. I have no idea what the real-life guys were like, but these characters are presented as mostly decent people who make a bunch of really, really bad decisions, the consequences of which stack up very quickly and with a sense of inevitability. The writers (and Michael Bay) make up for their appalling actions by giving them funny shit to do and wacky zingers to throw at each other. Basically, we are meant to delight in their incompetence. We’re not really rooting for them to succeed. It’s definitely a tough balance with regards to tone, but I think it’s one of the few things they did get pretty much right. Or at least as right as could be in a movie about these events. In truth, there were no heroes here.
I had been hoping against hope that with a much smaller budget and a story much smaller in scale, Michael Bay would adapt his style accordingly. This didn’t need to be flashy. It didn’t need to be full of cultural and ethnic stereotypes. It didn’t need to present Miami in such a glamorous way. It didn’t need to be so…Michael Bay-y. And yet, it is. Despite the lack of CGI destruction and alien robots, this movie looks like all the scenes from Transformers that don’t feature the Transformers.
It’s got all the usual Bay clichés; spasmatic editing (though some of it works pretty well), slow-motion hero shots of the main characters, shameless glory shots of leggy models, the camera moves in almost every single shot (Michael Bay has never heard of a tripod), there are no normal people, and he even reverts back to his patented 360° camera dolly move through multiple rooms. The Human Cartoon Character himself, Ken Jeong, shows up for one ridiculous scene as a rich motivational speaker, and thankfully is not seen again. The only human beings in the film are Ed Harris‘ private detective character and his wife, and the two of them actually have a couple of scenes with real human interaction. But that’s it. Every other character is on Michael Bay steroids.
Let’s not forget the one random scene where we pause from the story to see the aftermath of a hospital patient with no relevance to the plot whatsoever taking an explosive shit all over the walls and floor of a bathroom. And yes, you read that right. This is the kind of thing Michael Bay chooses to do with his first R-rated movie since 2003. I wonder…is this scene a metaphor for the cinematic shit he took inside multiplexes around the world with the last two Transformers movies? If so…genius!
The performances are good enough, and the actors do have some good material to work with from time to time. Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne Johnson and Anthony Mackie do a fine job carrying the film. Johnson in particular was really good. I believe parts of this film are among the best work he’s ever done. I’m sure the person he’s playing was nothing like this, but he gives a charismatic, funny performance regardless. Look for the scenes after his character ditches his sobriety. Tony Shalhoub is effective as the rich guy that gets kidnapped, tortured and extorted by the juiced up bodybuilders, but you can’t feel sympathy for the guy because he’s so damn over-the-top and despicable. It Girl Rebel Wilson shows up as a fat chick who loves black guys (and ends up marrying Mackie), and of course she has to try to be hilarious in every scene or else why is she there?! She couldn’t possibly be multi-faceted! This is a Michael Bay movie, motherfuckers! Penis jokes!!!
The script is decent, and there are a bunch of good one-liners, but most of it is egregious when you consider that they could’ve spent some of that time building character instead. God forbid. Also, once again I found Mark Wahlberg a lot less funny than the people who made this movie did. In general, I don’t think Mark Wahlberg is funny. Sorry. I thought he was the weak link in The Other Guys and I think Ted is one of the most overrated comedies of my lifetime. Here again he’s trying a bit too hard to be so-serious-he’s-funny. I didn’t dislike him in the movie, but I didn’t totally buy that he could be the ringleader of this gang of misfits. I also have general Mark Wahlberg Fatigue. If this guy didn’t show up in another movie for 5 years, I’d be fine with that. Take a cue from Daniel Day-Lewis, dude. Moderation.
Michael Bay has confessed many times that he’s a big fan of the Coen brothers, and there are a couple moments in this movie that were clearly intended to be Bay’s equivalent to the Fargo wood chipper scene, but Bay doesn’t understand the Coens’ ability to be subtle about the crazy shit you see in their movies. It doesn’t have to be BOOM! LOOK AT THIS CRAZY SHIT! SEE?! RIGHT HERE! THERE IT IS! CAN YOU BELIEVE IT!? YOU AIN’T NEVER SEEN NOTHIN LIKE THIS BEFORE, MOTHATRUCKAS!!! BOOM!
Bay is capable of some beautiful visuals, and there are several individual shots in this movie that are really awesome, but on the whole it is overstylized. One of his new tricks here is the abundant use of super slow motion, which certainly looks cool, but is not needed. I guess I should give him some kudos for being able to accomplish this look on this budget, but I go back to the fact that it wasn’t appropriate for this story. It must’ve broken Bay’s heart to only have one explosion in the entire movie.
All of that said, like all Michael Bay movies, Pain & Gain is immensely entertaining at times, the majority of the time even. The problem is this had the potential to be so much more if he had made it more dramatic, shot it in a more low-key way, and made the humor much more subtle. Hell, if Joel & Ethan Coen had made this movie, it might have been a Best Picture nominee. I could probably list 10 directors who would’ve been better suited to telling this story, but because Bay had been talking about the project passionately for several years, I thought maybe he had something different in mind than for it than what he usually does on his summer blockbusters. Nope. All that was missing here was Shia LaBeouf screaming like a girl and a Linkin Park theme song over the end credits.
Speaking of which, I should note that the end credits sequence is really great. They do the prerequisite title cards telling what happened to the real-life people after the 3 bad guys were arrested, and we see pictures of them juxtaposed with the actors (which may not have been the best idea since NONE of these guys look anything like their real-life counterparts). Really flashy and colorful with cool music. It was the one time I didn’t mind the movie being so blunt.
I wanted this to be so much more than it was. I guess I should’ve known better. As long as Michael Bay’s big movies continue making lots of money, he has no incentive to change what he does. Why do I even care about Michael Bay or his career? It’s a good question. The guy fascinates me. He is a talented visualist, and I really like his “Fuck you I’m Michael Bay” personality. He gives interesting quotes in interviews. He does great commentary tracks on his DVDs and Blu-rays. I dunno, Michael Bay is friggin cool. If I could name any 10 people in Hollywood to be good friends with, he’d be one of em. And that’s a fine idea for a separate blog post!
IMDb rating: 6/10
Biggies Consideration: Best Supporting Actor (Dwayne Johnson)
Expect full reviews of Star Trek Into Darkness and Fast & Furious 6 in the coming weeks. With Star Trek especially, I really need to get heavy into spoilers, so I may hold that off a week until most people have seen it.
And for the denouement, enjoy this guy taking a little too much pleasure in eating cotton candy: